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Saving Grace

After Salvaging His Career, Worrell Is Having Best Season With the Dodgers

September 14, 1996|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The opened bottle of champagne stood inside Todd Worrell's locker, but there was no celebration. Many of his Dodger teammates, in fact, were oblivious to the achievement.

No matter. Worrell had just saved his 40th game of the season, a personal and team high. In fact, before Worrell came along, no Dodger pitcher had saved even 30 in a season.

"Sometimes, it's hard for me to even believe," Worrell said. "I never lost hope, but realistically, I didn't know whether this was possible. I've gone through a lot, but it's all paid off."

Worrell, who turns 37 in two weeks, was one of the premier closers in the National League in the mid-1980s, then needed major reconstructive elbow and rotator-cuff operations. He went two seasons without pitching in the big leagues and 34 months without a save.

Yet few looked beyond his performances and unfulfilled expectations the first two years of his Dodger career.

Few realized, or cared, that he is as genuine a family man as anyone in the game. Or that he organizes prayer meetings and chapel services each week for his teammates. Or that he counsels younger players and helps prepare them to one day take his job. To that extent, he has taken rookie reliever Darren Dreifort into his home to live with him the rest of the season.

Worrell's early struggles on the mound left fans so disappointed that they booed him during the 1995 opening-day introductions at Dodger Stadium.

Now, a year after helping the Dodgers to the National League West championship for the first time since 1988, Worrell has played a key role in getting them back into first place and vying for another title.

"People forget what a truly amazing story Todd Worrell is," said Fred Claire, Dodger executive vice president. "This is a story of a guy who never gave up on himself, but because of his outstanding ability and outstanding competitive spirit, he has been as good as anyone in the game.

"For him to come back and do what he's done is truly remarkable.

"Let's put it this way: We would not have won the division last year or be [contending] this year without him."

Perhaps most impressive, Worrell is pitching better now than ever before.

"To me, it's not so surprising what he's done but what he's had to endure and overcome from the media and the fans," first baseman Eric Karros said. "The first two years here, the media and fans were brutal on him.

"That's the thing about this game. People have short memories. They forget the frustrating times he's had to overcome."

The expectations surrounding Worrell's arrival were stratospheric. He signed a three-year, $9.2-million contract on Dec. 9, 1992, and was considered the last piece to the Dodgers' potential championship puzzle. Instead, in only the second game of the season, he strained his right forearm. He was gone for seven weeks, then only two weeks later, was put on the disabled list again because of pain in his right elbow.

Claire was criticized for not having Worrell undergo a physical before signing. It didn't matter that Worrell's forearm strain had nothing to do with his previous elbow problem. Or that he was 2-0 with a 0.49 ERA the final three months of the 1991 season for the St. Louis Cardinals. Or even that if the Dodgers had not signed Worrell, the Braves were ready to grab him.

"I took a lot of heat for that," Claire said. "It was impossible to even see the name Todd Worrell in the paper without reading that Fred Claire did not make him take a physical. I also knew that we desperately needed a closer, and Todd was the best guy out there."

Worrell was fully recuperated the next season for the Dodgers, but his relationship with Manager Tom Lasorda was rotting. Worrell believes that a closer should work only the final inning, except for rare occasions. Lasorda believed that the closer should come into the game whenever needed. The manager prevailed, of course, and Worrell pitched two full innings in nine games, which might have contributed to his eight blown saves in 19 opportunities.

"My battles were with Tommy, more than [with] the fans or media," Worrell said. "We had our confrontations, but that's going to happen. No one is always going to agree with their boss. We had the same goals and objectives, but sometimes those are lost when egos and personalities clash."

It reached a point before the 1995 season, Worrell said, that Claire asked him if he wanted to be traded.

"I wanted to stay," Worrell said. "I didn't want to give up. And I sat down with Tommy. I told him that I want people to believe in me, and when a manager has confidence in you, that means all of the difference in the world.

"I said, 'Just leave me out there. If I mess it up, I mess it up. But I guarantee you if you do, you'll like the percentages.'

"And to be fair with Tommy, he was right. I had a hard time getting my act together. I started pitching better, Tommy left me out there, and I think we ended up learning something from each other."

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